“Married a 100 times, died almost twice, never born but always brought down by a parachute,” said Motilal Rajvansh, the veteran hero of Hindi cinema, on his screen career with characteristic humour.
Indeed, Motilal had a glorious record as filmdom’s smartest hero. For over two decades, he reigned supreme over the hearts of swooning fans, and even at the age of 50, he was going strong. “I am ahead of our Government because I have a 55-year plan,” he said. But little did Motilal realise how prophetic his statement was. At the age of 55, cinema had to bid farewell to its most dapper hero. Always immaculately turned out, Motilal was never seen without his devil-may-care look, complimented by the famous tilt of his felt hat. During his career, he walked off with many honors — lock, stock and megaphone. Noted for his mastery over histrionics, Motilal’s name became a byword for effortless acting.
Born in Simla in December 1910, Motilal came from a distinguished family from Delhi. His father was a renowned educationist, who died when Motilal was just one year old. He was brought up by his uncle who was a well-known civil surgeon in UP. At first, Moti was sent to an English school at Simla and later, in UP. Thereafter he shifted to Delhi where he continued with school and college.
After leaving college, Moti came to Bombay to join the Navy. But, he fell ill and was prevented from appearing for the test. But fate had other choices charted out for him. One day, he went to see a film shoot at Sagar Studios where director K P Ghosh was shooting. Motilal, even then, was quite the man about the town and he caught Ghosh’s eye. And, in 1934 at the age of 24, he was offered the role of the hero in Shaher Ka Jadoo (1934).
Overnight, he was catapulted to stardom. His first heroine was Sabita Devi. His performance was so impressive that Ghosh declared, “Here’s the hero I have been hunting for, for so long.” And everything he touched turned to gold. Silver King (1935), Lagna Bandhan (1936), and Jagirdar (1937), were all box-office hits. In Lagna Bandhan he played a double role while in Jagirdar he played a dashing hero to a new heart-throb, Maya Bannerjee. With Kokila, Captain Kirti Kumar (1937), Dr Madhurika (1935) and Three Hundred Days And After (1938), Motilal attained new heights of histrionics. His romantic roles in Kulvadhu (1937) and Hum Tum Aur Woh (1938) were equally well appreciated. He even excelled in the light comedy — Three Hundred Days And After. In fact, Motilal always considered this performance among his best. This picture went down in the annals of film history for the shot of Motilal polishing shoes at Bori Bunder, Bombay, in an outdoor sequence. Motilal’s success in comedy was due to his air of gaiety and informality, which people had missed so far in the rigid, copy-book variety of film acting on the Indian screen. Smart to his finger tips, with an arresting glint in his eyes, he had a beguiling, raffish combination of devil-may-care and self consciousness in his mannerisms. Even in sombre roles, a give-away twinkle in his eyes indicated that Motilal had the last laugh.
In 1937, he ended his association with Sagar and acted with director R S Chowdhary in Sach Hai (1939). He went on to do Sudama’s Apki Marzi (1939) and won many laurels. Soon, he was bagged by Ranjit where he appeared in a wide range of subjects ranging from Deewaali (1940) to Holi (1940). His performance in Shadi (1941), directed by Jayant Desai, won him more praise. The picture was a silver jubilee hit and had Khurshid playing the heroine. Another outstanding picture with Ranjit was Achhoot (1940), a bold theme which tackled the problem of Harijan uplift. It was directed by Sardar Chandulal Shah and had Goharbai as the heroine. Motilal’s portrayal as an untouchable was so convincing that audiences forgot that this was the same hero who set trends in fashion. In 1939, in an interview on AIR, in a special broadcast, `1939, in Indian films,’ Motilal said, “In Sach Hai, I was a Brahmin. In Achhoot, I am an untouchable. But the aim of both these characters was the same humanity.”
In Aage Kadam (1943), directed by N R Acharya, he returned to comedy. Forever experimenting, he then played a serious man in Dost (1944) and Gajre (1948). His portrayal of pathos brought tears to the eyes of audiences in cinema halls all over India. He was equally at home in Mehboob’s Taqdeer (1943) and Mazhar Khan’s Paheli Nazar (1945). Hamari Beti (1950), produced and directed by Shobhana Samarth, revealed his mastery over various branches of film-production. Besides a scintillating performance, he wrote the scenario as well, and the pointed dialogues had the stamp of a seasoned writer. He took the filmworld by storm once again with his comic role in Roop K Shorey’s Ek Thi Ladki (1949) with Meena Shorey, the larralappa girl of Indian screen. The Moti-Meena pair provided more laughs in Ek Do Teen (1953), another Shorey comedy.
Parakh (1961) earned him a Filmfare Award for best supporting actor. Motilal acted with almost all the leading heroines of the silver screen — ranging from the veteran Gohar to a comparative newcomer like Shyama — over the past two decades. The list makes an imposing line-up and includes names like Sabita Devi, Maya Bannerjee, Rose, Madhuri, Khurshid, Veena, Munawwar Sultana, Shamim, Vanmala, Nargis, Naseem, Suraiya, Anjali, Noor Jehan, Geeta Nizami, Mumtaz Shanti, Snehprabha Pradhan, Meena Kumari, Madhubala, and Meena Shorey.
But it wasn’t always easy. Sometimes he had to put his acting abilities in overdrive to carry it off with elan. Says he, “On the sets of Taqdeer it was quite an experience to make love to the same Nargis whom I used to lift on my shoulders as a child when she used to accompany her mother Jaddanbai to Sagar Studios.” But he was never faced with a situation where his humour did not tide him through. “Recently I met a child-star Daisy Irani at a party and told her, `Don’t worry, I am not going to quit the screen in the near future. I am waiting for you to grow up and play a heroine opposite me’”. His sense of humour. That’s what Motilal is best remembered for. Even when he recounted unpleasant incidents of his life, he was always tongue-in-cheek. When he talked about the illness which overtook him in 1952, he said, “I had become so serious, that my friends refused to believe that I was alive. Many of them, who had rushed to my wife on hearing the rumour about my death, kept rubbing their eyes and touching my body to ascertain that they were not talking to my ghost!” Even Motilal’s doctor conceded that more than any medicine, it was his sense of humor that facilitated his recovery.
Neither old age nor sickness deterred his dare-devil attitude. Many years ago, while he was fielding under the celebrated cricket-star Vijay Merchant’s captainship at the CCI, a ball hit his upper eye-lid. He almost lost his eye but displayed the swelling with the pride of a battle-scarred soldier!
Film magazines of the time report that Vijay Merchant was so upset about this injury that even after Motilal recovered, he made it a point to see Motilal’s pictures and check for swelling near the eye. It was only when Motilal played a grand, stylish knock of 31 runs in the second innings of the Film Star cricket match in 1951, that Vijay (who was the master of ceremonies) was convinced that he was fully recovered. Motilal had played first class cricket since 1926. “Had I not joined the movies, I would have certainly made a name in cricket. I was playing so well that by now I would have surely become India’s captain,” he used to say, with his usual audacity. When air-services were introduced to India, Motilal learnt to fly. An excellent pilot, he once owned an aircraft. “I have gone as far as the Andamans,” he would say, adding, “Not as a criminal but as a tourist.” In his younger days, he would drive at break-neck speed, all the while keeping time to the music blaring on his car-radio with his accelerator.
But at home, Motilal was a calmer man. He was happily married to a doctor and the Motilal establishment at Walkeshwar, Malabar Hill, was notable for its serenity. Motilal had a passion for horse-racing. He used to have a horse called Traitor, because the animal had the nasty habit of looking back at Motilal exactly at the time of reaching the winning post and losing the race in the effort! He gave up racing when his dearest friend Chandramohan, a character actor, died.
As a monument to their friendship and drawing inspiration from Chandramohan’s life, Moti wanted to produce a film called Juari. It was to have a gambler as the central character with lots of horse racing. Motilal wanted to rope in many jockeys but the film never saw light of day. He always said, “My best girl friend is loneliness.” In his last days, when he was fighting a serious illness, he told journalist friends, “After playing the role of Mr Sampat I developed a speciality for cheating. Like Mr Sampat, who was an expert cheat, I have cheated death.” But Motilal was human and even he could not cheat Yama. In 1965, Motilal breathed his last. But the image of his raffish smile, the glint in his eye and the just-right tilt of his hat endures.